Such is the maelstrom in British politics that when I spoke recently to the historian Tom Holland, we couldn’t be sure whether the Prime Minister would still be in place by the time of publication.
That is perhaps why Holland’s long view is so needed. The award-winning author’s books have spanned subjects as towering as the great men of Roman imperial history and the evolution of Western thought, and been described as everything from “masterpieces” to “soap opera” in the process. Meanwhile his irreverent, co-presented podcast, The Rest Is History, applies ever-intriguing long perspectives to current affairs.
So as distracting as the unfolding accounts of Westminster’s partygate are, it is to the underlying lessons and larger warnings that Holland’s attention is turned. No issue is perhaps more revealing of what he identifies as the current “paradox of Britain” than the degradation of nature.
Despite so much of the population being signed-up members of environmental NGOs or activist groups, Britain still has one of most nature-depleted countrysides in Europe, he explains over Zoom. And the situation is only getting worse: “As I get older, this sense that everyone has been having for generations — that the sounds of your childhood are no longer around and that something incredibly precious is going — it increases,” Holland, 54, with spiky silver hair, laments from a book-filled nook at his home in Salisbury. “In the garden of my house hedgehogs were always coming in, and now I don’t think my children have ever seen one. I find it really upsetting.”
Amid this sense of loss, however, Holland has identified a way forward. Speaking at a recent Conservative Environment Network (CEN) event on the importance of conserving natural inheritance, he advised Tory members to remember their background as the party of the “particular”. Rather than focus on abstract concepts such as sustainability, he suggests the Conservative Party should position itself as “the party for Mrs Tiggy-Winkle”, advocating the restoration of individual species, from the hedgehog to the brown trout. Many beloved wild creatures are also ecological bellwethers, so policies to protect these creatures will restore wider habitats, he told the New Statesman.
Conservative thinking is well placed to advocate for this approach, Holland suggests, thanks to the influence of Edmund Burke. The eighteenth-century philosopher famously criticised the ideals embodied by the French Revolution for overlooking the importance of the local and the particular, two values Holland believes are essential to galvanising support for environmental action.
In contrast, he thinks contemporary climate activism leans too much on “broad-brush, abstracted and apocalyptic” messaging, which can leave people feeling helpless. “When I go to Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, it feels more like a religious ritual or ceremony,” he says. In calling for existence itself to be saved, “they’re attempting to invoke something so vast it might as well be a god”.
“There’s a kind of intoxication and pleasure in the shudder that comes from contemplating the end of the world. But it closes our eyes to what we can practically do.”
Not all those who embody Burkean ideals today would align with modern Conservative politics, however, Holland acknowledges. In his eyes, the contemporary Burkean mantle is being carried less by politicians in Westminster, and more by the “wholly admirable” conservationists he follows on Twitter, such as “Hedgehog” Hugh Warwick and the water vole advocate Jo Cartmell.
“I’m sure Jo’s not a Conservative — but she is a conservator. I think she is Burkean; I hope she forgives me for saying that!”
Nor is Holland himself a signed-up Tory. He was invited to address the CEN by its chairman, the financier Ben Goldsmith, but he didn’t vote for Brexit and identifies as a floating voter in terms of his party politics.
So how has he come to such Burkean thinking? Holland described his sense of responsibility to other species as a “kind of spiritual response” to Britain’s natural beauty, which, he said, has grown with the arrival of his children. His friendship with punk musician turned river campaigner Feargal Sharkey, who introduced him to the extreme levels of pollution suffered by waterways like the Ver in St Albans, has also influenced his thinking.
In a better world, Holland mused, people in the St Albans area, whatever their political colours, would make saving the Ver river a common cause. “There should be scope for the fly fisher and the Extinction Rebellion activist to get together, and for Tories and Greens to get together,” he rues. “It’s too important not to.”
Overcoming such conceptual divides is only likely to become more pressing as pro-Brexit forces turn their attention towards opposing and slowing the transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, especially if the faction pushing for a nationwide referendum on the policy gets its way.
“If it’s framed as a referendum on net zero, I think they’d lose,” Holland said of those advocating for the interests of the environment. “But, conversely, if you say you don’t want toxic rivers and no hedgehogs, people might vote for it.”
Furthermore, the underlying tensions that such a referendum would potentially play out — between the impulse to conserve that which endures beyond an individual lifespan and the privileging of present-day commercial interest — are ones that Holland sees as dividing both the Tory party and individuals across the nation.
That the current compromise is no longer sustainable is evident in the experience of Boris Johnson himself. “Johnson embodies massive tensions within himself. He’s an instinctive politician; that’s his genius,” says Holland, with reference to the prime minister’s support for both renewable energy and carbon-intensive big infrastructure. “But I think you reach a certain point, especially if those instincts are often contradictory, where you crash into a wall, which I think is what he’s done now.”